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On his way through the woods to his marriage, Fadinard's horse eats the hat of a married lady spending here a few moments with her lover. Fadinard has to find the very same rare hat to avoid her dishonor. This will greatly disturb his own marriage. Written by
I just looked at Rene Clair's "An Italian Straw Hat" for the second time -- the first time in a dozen years and though I am now aware of potential issues with the viewing process -- like most late silent pictures, it almost certainly plays better with an audience -- seeing it by myself on my TV, it again falls a bit flat. The last time it was on a mediocre VHS copy. This time it was on the beautifully transferred Flicker Alley DVD.
This weakness surprised me the first time I saw it, since I am a great fan of Clair's sound films, as well as his silent short subjects, but I think I have identified at least part of the problem: I think Clair was directing under close supervision by someone who expected to see Labiche's play on the screen. As Clair's great films were always surrealistic, clearly in a world disjoint from the one we see around us, how could he be expected to to force the viewer into his own world? Even the way the characters are dressed and shot is typical of early French films -- one of the DVD extras is a Zecca short from 1906 or 1908, ""After the Wedding" and those characters were virtually dropped into Clair's picture -- so at least I now understand that we are dealing with then-current stage conventions.
Most of the movie looks as if it could have been directed by Louis Feullade: it has the placidly sardonic, observant camera, although it lacks the air of emotional reality that Feuillade's seemingly-improvised movies had: some of the wilder parts of LES VAMPIRE look as if he realized he had written himself into a corner, and there's one of his earlier movies in which the characters have to mail a letter, so they take a hot-air balloon to a mail box and I suddenly realized that the producer had given them a balloon and Feuillade used it because it would look cool and it was already paid for.
Albert Préjean, one of Clair's regulars at this point -- he was magnificent in "Sous les Toits de Paris" -- attempts the lead role with an air of depression. Unfortunately, while this may be appropriate to the character, given that he is watching his life unravel, the flat affect of depression is not terribly interesting for the audience.
It is only about two-thirds of the way through that Clair asserts his authority by showing us what's going on in Préjean's mind as houses begin to fall apart. But while this revived my interest, the tight plotting of Labiche's play took over again and I could see the wheels spinning neatly over the tracks of the story.
Ultimately, this is a superior silent version of an excellent 19th Century farce and should keep the dedicated silent enthusiast engrossed. However, for the fan of Rene Clair, it is a bit patchy.
I watched the movie with the Alloy Orchestra's soundtrack playing -- their arrangements are usually solid and supportive. If I enjoy a silent movie, I usually don't consciously notice the soundtrack, so the fact that I think that their polite-sounding orchestrations of late 19th and early 20th century program music is entirely appropriate is a bit of a put-down. It is certainly not their fault that I am familiar with one of the tunes through its use by Allen Sherman for one his comic rewrites: in this case, I kept hearing him singing his sardonic "Lots of Luck."
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